Thursday, April 13, 2023

Events: The Train Wreck of May 23, 1880

While train rides in the Santa Cruz Mountains were sometimes fun affairs and more usually just a part of a person’s daily commute, in the afternoon of Sunday, May 23, 1880, an excursion trip became the stuff of nightmares. That morning, a fourteen-car South Pacific Coast Railroad excursion train arrived at Big Trees, today's Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. In it were members of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, the Alameda Harmonie Verein, and the Independent Rifles, among others, about 300 people in total. Picnickers enjoyed the early afternoon walking through the redwood groves and picking wild flowers. Some fished while others just relaxed under the mid-Spring sun. A number of Santa Cruzans had travelled to Felton earlier in the day to join the excursion group. Included among these were Duncan McPherson, editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Santa Cruz County Sheriff Elmer Dakan.

Original chromolithograph of the May 23, 1880 wreck commissioned by and published in The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp on June 5. Art by Mr. Keller.

At around 3:00 p.m., Felton Depot received a request from a group of excursionists for a train to take them to Santa Cruz, where they hoped to enjoy the last hours of the day at the beach. The train of George L. Colegrove, a man experienced with the route through San Lorenzo Gorge, was initially assigned the duty, but this was rescinded and a different crew was tasked with the duty headed by engineer Robert J. Elliott and his fireman, Frank R. Thompson, neither of whom had ever taken the train down the grade. Elliott's train was larger than Colegrove's, which meant that it had to be controlled with more caution as it navigated San Lorenzo Gorge. Colegrove quickly coached Elliott about the dangers of the route, and provided him with his brakeman, Howard D. Anthrum, who knew the line well. Sam Davis, the younger brother of the railroad’s president, Alfred Davis, also insisted on joining the crew in the cab of South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3. Other crew members included Alfred Withers, an attachĂ© of the railroad, and M. D. McLean, the brakeman.

Early view of Big Trees before the addition of a siding for passenger cars, 1880s. Photo by Alfred J. Perkins. [WorthPoint – colorized using MyHeritage]

Rather than use formal passenger cars, Elliott chose to bring flatcars that had bench seats and four-foot guard rails installed, similar in style to the Santa Cruz Big Trees & Pacific Railway excursion cars uses today, though more crudely constructed. Elliott’s train arrived at Big Trees at around 3:15 and the engineer sounded the whistle for all aboard. Conductor William D. Bones crowded the picnickers onto three of the open-air excursion cars, which only measured 24 feet in length. By the time the train was ready to go ten minutes later, many passengers were standing precariously or shoved against the poor-quality railings of the cars. For whatever reason, Elliott had decided against turning the locomotive at the Felton turntable and instead planned to back the train down the seven miles of track through San Lorenzo Gorge to Santa Cruz.

The area known as Summit, later Rincon, with a South Pacific Coast Railway train approaching on the main line, ca 1900. [UC Santa Cruz Digital Collections – colorized using MyHeritage]

Three miles along the route, at around 4:00, the train reached Summit, the highest point along the line. The three miles beyond Summit were steep with tight turns, precarious bridges, and a tunnel through the Hogsback above the California Powder Works. Elliott and his crew, looking over the tender of their locomotive, began to back down the grade from Summit and passed into Tunnel No. 7. It was here that all accounts agree things began to go wrong. The train began to gain speed as it curved out of the tunnel toward the grade crossing of West San Lorenzo Drive (Highway 9). Elliott blew the whistle alerting Bones and McLean to begin braking the cars. McLean later claimed that he had already tightened the brakes on the first car, but Bones admitted that he could not get to the brake wheel on the third car because it was overloaded with passengers and he was busy collecting money.

The sharp curve on the railroad tracks at the West San Lorenzo Drive grade crossing, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Elliott looked through the cab window toward the back of the train and watched as the three flatcars began swaying heavily. He slammed on the engine’s brakes and put the drive wheels of the locomotive in reverse, but this did little to slow the train. A minor buckle in the track, probably caused by heat expansion from the unusually warm Spring day, caused the locomotive to rock severely and lift off the outside rails as the train curved around a tight bend. Centrifugal force pulled the passengers toward the hillside, adding a heavy weight to a poorly-built railing. The railing gave way in the second car when it brushed against a rock outcropping. As the car derailed, passengers began spilling into the hillside and onto the tracks below. The third car also derailed, falling down the opposite embankment toward the road below. More passengers were dumped over the side of the car. Elliott braked as hard as he was able from the front of the train and it slowly rolled to a stop just before the bridge over Shady Gulch. But it was too late.

The deadly rock outcropping where the car derailed, crushing passengers into the hillside, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Scattered across the rails were bodies everywhere. Nearly sixty passengers from the two cars were littered across the tracks. Those from the third car were thrown down the hill, where many of them were badly injured but most survived. The passengers from the second car, though, were less lucky. Dashed against the hillside, many were crushed or, worse, run over by the car that followed. As Elliott, Anthrum, and Davis ran back to the cars, all they heard were screams as the severity of the incident became obvious. It was a massacre. Never in Santa Cruz County history was there such a railroad disaster before or after, and it proved to be the second-worst rail accident in the state to date.

South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3, 1880s. [ebay – colorized using MyHeritage]

Realizing that they could do little to help the people, Elliott and Anthrum uncoupled the locomotive and carefully rode it to Santa Cruz to seek help. They quickly gathered medical supplies, doctors, and others and returned to the site of the accident about thirty minutes later. By this point, thirteen people were declared dead and over fifty other passengers were severely injured. The railroad crew quickly recoupled the cars and put the flatcars back on the track. Those dying or grievously wounded were placed on the cars and rushed to Santa Cruz where they were taken up by most of the local hotels including the Ocean House, Germania Hotel, and Wilkins House. Colegrove’s train was brought in from the north and took less injured people and the remaining excursionists back to Felton, where they were loaded onto a larger train bound for the Bay Area.

South Pacific Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 3 parked at the scene of the wreck for the inquest committee to inspect, May 20, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Before dusk, two more passengers had died. Two final passengers would die on their journey back to San Francisco, resulting in a total of seventeen dead from the accident. These included Santa Cruzans, San Franciscans, and other men and women of the Bay Area. The full list of deaths included Frank Butler, William Costello, Jeremiah Darcy, Louis Falk, Patrick Gallagher, Frank Herringer, George C. W. Huer, Walter Hoyt, Mrs. C. S. Hussey, Ernest R. Jasper, Clayton F. Merrill, Frederick William Opitz, John Ripon, Joseph Salinger, Henry W. Stahle, and John Straub. The South Pacific Coast Railroad paid for all costs incurred by the passengers due to the accident.

Faced with few options, Dakan arrested Elliott under charges of gross incompetence and manslaughter, although it may also have been for his protection since many of the surviving passengers wished him harm. The sheriff had been on the train in the first car and witnessed the entire affair. While survivors tried to sleep off their injuries and forget the nightmare they had just experienced, crews working for the South Pacific Coast Railroad snuck up to the site of the accident and cleaned up before the full extent of their culpability could be determined.

Members of the inquest committee inspecting the tracks, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

That night, Judge John Pope Davenport ordered the coroner’s inquest board to investigate the incident. Early the next morning, the nine-member board headed out to the site of the accident. They found to their annoyance that the entire site had been stripped of evidence, with the flatcars gone, the rails and ties repaired, and the grade raised and freshly ballasted. Almost all evidence of the accident had been erased. While there, a photographer captured at least seven stereographs of the scene, showing where the accident had occurred and several of the surrounding geographic and railroad features. Perhaps surprisingly, these stereographs, with captions explaining their purpose, were sold commercially after first serving as evidence in the inquest.

On Tuesday, May 25, Davenport and the inquest board began to hear testimony from forty witnesses to the event. Elliott’s competence as an engineer was called into question as it was revealed that he had also failed to adequately control the train when he took it from Alameda to Felton on May 22. The poor quality of the couplers used on the train were also noted. Still others emphasized the poorly-ballasted track with rails that had inadequate anchors and joints, all of which may have been further impacted by the unusually hot afternoon on May 23. The board took a week to come to a verdict, presenting a split decision on Monday, May 31.

The inquest committee investigating the site of the wreck, May 24, 1880. [Alan Young – colorized using MyHeritage]

Three members of the board declared the railroad at fault for assigning an inexperienced crew to the train and not properly notifying the engineer of the sharp curves along the route. Another member blamed the engineer for the entire disaster. And the remining five members refused to place blame at all, claiming that accidents happen and the reasons cannot always be known. Besides the railroad’s cover-up efforts, a considerable reason for this split decision was the different stories told by the forty witnesses, few of whom could agree on specifics.

The disaster made worldwide news, with newspapers mentioning it as far away as Australia. An inaccurate color sketch based on initial reports of the accident was produced by Mr. Keller for the June 5 issue of The San Francisco Illustrated Wasp. Bay Area newspapers continued to report on the coroner’s inquest for the following two weeks. The wreck led to several changes. The South Pacific Coast Railroad began a program of straightening curves and reducing grades across its lines. It also changed the couplers used in its trains and improved its efforts at ballasting track. More importantly, crews operating along the former Santa Cruz & Felton Railroad’s grade had to receive special training and were expected to follow rules closely to ensure that such an incident as that of May 23, 1880 never occurred again.

Citations & Credits:

  • Secrest, William B., Jr., and William B., Sr. California Disasters, 1812–1899: Firsthand accounts of fires, shipwrecks, floods, epidemics, earthquakes and other California tragedies. Sanger, CA: Word Dancer Press, 2006.
  • MacGregor, Bruce. “Stereo Forensics: An Investigation into the May 23, 1880 South Pacific Coast Railroad Accident,” Stereo World 25:5 (Nov/Dec 1998), 10-15.
  • Various newspapers from throughout California and the world, May–June 1880. 

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